Scenes From The Back Of Beyond, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London

2.00

We're in a Sydney suburb in 1959, and Bill is expanding on the wonderful future that awaits Australia, with "rational people working for the common good" of being happy. Even without the entrance of a sullen 10-year-old, the victim of a messy divorce, it's obvious that Bill's belief is going to be sorely tested. Bill may be horribly naive for a middle-aged man, but his wife, Helen, believes that a better world exists already, though not in Australia.

She is inspired by the wholesome Chinese masses and the busy, joyous Russians - her teenage daughter's mention of prison camps for dissenters is indignantly dismissed as Western propaganda. In utopia's waiting room, however, things aren't so sunny: Helen permits sex rarely, endures it grimly.

When the unhappy boy's father, David, turns up, Bill is so dazzled by his being an atomic scientist that he is blind to David's narcissism. What follows is, again, predictable. If Meredith Oakes's plot holds no surprises, does her dialogue have charms? Again, sadly, no.

When her deluded liberals burst into rare anger, we can have a patronising giggle or two - Helen, blaming their daughter's unladylike behaviour on Bill, snaps, "What did you expect, teaching her carpentry and home brewing!" But the uncertain tone and stilted air of the drama muffle our response.

There is little to fault in Ramin Gray's deft, well-cast production - Penny Downie is both appalling and sympathetic as Helen, and the dependably solid Martin Turner almost manages to flesh out the awkwardly written Bill. But none of the characters are explored with any sensitivity.

There is a hint that Bill might be a more selfish and oppressive parent than the brittle, pushy Helen. But this is swept away well before the finale, when we see Bill holding the actual future of Australia--a beautiful baby. With this off-key sentimentality, the author completes the muddle of moods that gives her play the aspect of an undigested piece of family history.

Oakes does, however, remind us of the lengths to which humourless liberals could go for ideological purity. As Bill states, the Communists condemned Donald Duck. While one can see that they would approve of the cooperative Mickey and dislike the deviationist Donald, why didn't they turn their ire on Donald's bloated-capitalist relative, Scrooge McDuck?

To 25 November (020-7565 5000; www.royalcourttheatre.com)

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